Donald Trump’s first few days of office have been such an explosion of propagandist grapeshot many commentators have been reaching for their copies of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm.
Orwell’s seminal essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ should also go on the emergency reading list.
As Orwell said political language from Conservatives to Anarchists ‘is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan says explaining away press secretary Sean Spicer’s claim of a record inauguration audience as ‘alternative facts’ means we have ‘come full Orwell.’
The full Orwell would recognise the game here of political speech being largely the defence of the indefensible.
As Orwell said ‘political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.’
Orwell never set foot in America. But he was an avid critic of its literature and politics.
He would be the first to concede that his political attitude to the USA was the very double-think he dramatized in Nineteen Eight Four.
He resented how post-war US economic dominance frustrated the realisation of the British socialist dream, but at the same time chose the American side against the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
If Orwell were alive today I imagine Trump would amuse and horrify him at the same time.
Indeed, Trump does exemplify and project the double-think power to ‘hold two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.’
He says he respects women and at the same time clearly objectifies them.
He constructs Russian President Vladimir Putin as his friend, even invites the Russians to hack the computer systems of his political opponent, but at the same time emphasises the need to match Russian nuclear ambitions.
The Trumpian binary dance of contradiction has spawned the exquisite American neologism ‘frenemy’ – a word that is classic Newspeak from Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Frenemies take us back to the pigs in Animal Farm when Snowball was the hero of the revolution against the evil farmer Mr Jones, loyal and courageous to Napoleon, but later the traitor, deviationist and renegade.
Napoleon’s propagandist porker called Squealer was capable of persuading all the other animals that it was Napoleon and not Snowball who had attacked Mr Jones. He had secret documents to prove it.
It is not very difficult to imagine the potential volte face on Putin at the Trumpian White House press conferences to come.
As all students of Orwellian literature will recall Squealer can ‘turn black into white’ and is expert in ‘New Belief’.
Orwell would have appreciated how the eruption of populist demagoguery in the Brexit and Trump electoral triumphs on both sides of the Atlantic have generated a ‘post-truth’ anxiety in the mainstream media.
The key media institutions of journalism sense a crisis. Public sphere news and current affairs interpretation is supposed to represent reality to the audience.
Orwell said ‘realism’ used to be called dishonesty, and was certainly part of the general political atmosphere of his time.
He wrote in his account of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, that bombs are indeed impartial because they killed the man they were thrown at, and the man who threw them.
At present Trump’s Orwellian cantata is more of a carnival of propagandist lies, even when, as Orwell so poignantly observed, one is in fact telling the truth.
The dangers lie in phase two of a ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ world.
Orwell’s key message in Nineteen Eighty-Four is that the purpose of propaganda is to narrow and limit human consciousness, confuse human conscience, and control and narrow the range of thinking.
After his death, Orwell’s crystal pane deconstruction of the corruption of revolution and the totalitarian game were adopted as propagandist weapons by the CIA against the Soviet Union.
The early transfer of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four to film was even financed by the CIA with the end plots changed from the Orwell originals.
If any Orwellian unmasking of Trump rhetoric begins to hurt, I imagine the day will come when the new President gestures with his characteristic shape and pinch hand movement and bellows ‘Fake Orwell.’
Professor Tim Crook, Orwell Society Committee Member
An abridged version of this article appeared in The Guardian 25th January 2017